Ghana: Reverend Minister raises the Politico-religious bar

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Until two Sundays ago, Ghanaians lived with the delusion that politics can be separated from the other institutions of society, such as religion and chieftaincy. The wake-up call came from none other than an ex-General Overseer of the Methodist Church, Reverend Samuel Asante-Antwi, who waded into the thin line between church and state, draped in the colours of Ghana’s largest opposition party, the New Patriotic Party (NPP) during church service.

Hailing Nana Akuffo-Addo, the NPP candidate for 2012 presidential polls, as the best man for the job, he went on to castigate the ruling administration for the country’s economic decay. He defended NPP’s record during 2000 – 2008 with a set of rhetorical questions: “… they said we didn’t do well, what they have done? What about the roads? Now the road toll has been increased; … by more than a thousand per cent. What have they done with the monies collected? (Have they provided) water, electricity?”

Of all the comments Rev. Asante-Antwi made, the above got everyone up in arms; from the government, think- tanks, and lay people who demanded an apology from Asante-Antwi and from the opposition NPP that defended him. The critics’ main argument is that a “man of God” cannot practice partisanship from the pulpit.

But I find these reactions very surprising. We all know that our religious bodies, the state and traditional institutions (i.e., the government, chiefs/fetish priests) are not only the most powerful institutions in the society, but there also seem to be a tacit collusion among them to maintain their (social and economic) status. How? It’s simple: Pastors need the custodians of traditional norms and beliefs (chiefs, and fetish priests) to keep drumming up witchcraft and other superstitions, so they can perpetuate their own message of a good-vs.-evil-world to keep us coming back to fill the pews each Sunday. In turn, the custodians of culture rely on the politicians to screw up the economy so badly that people will continue to look up to a fetish priest for some answers; and the corrupt politician needs the pastor to tell us to “give it all to God.”

The deal has worked well so far, but at a cost of blurring the lines, as enshrined in Ghana’s constitution, separating these institutions. These days, every second word uttered by a politician is “God.” We have a president who declares publicly that his election victory in 2008 was predicted by a Nigerian pastor, and that this should be clear manifestation of “God’s existence.” John Atta-Mills was so moved by “God’s hand” in the 2008 polls that he thought fit to initiate an annual national prayer week. Don’t we spend enough time each day praying?

Take Asante-Antwi’s case for example. Ironically, the occasion was a church service specially put together by the Akuffo-Addo’s team so he can thank “God” for his election as NPP flag-bearer. I wonder what “God” sees in Akuffo-Addo, but missing in the other four candidates he contested the flag bearer position of his party with – including one of “God’s own,” Rev. John Kwame Kodua.

This blatant disregard of our constitution can also be seen in the corridors of chieftaincy. In the run-up to an election, politicians will troop in with “cases of schnapps and undisclosed sums of cash” to seek a chief’s “blessings and advice.” Since chiefs continue to wield enormous influence, they are also powerful vote-brokers who can help sway voting results in one direction or the other. Hence, such visits are nothing short of vote-buying. The drafters of the Ghanaian constitution were cognizant of this and cleverly drew a thick line between these two institutions in Article 267; which in practice, have all but been ignored. For there to be any chance of building-up our fledging democracy, it’s important that this constitutional provision is respected to the letter.

Back to Asante-Antwi. So what could have motivated him now to “raise the bar” (or did he lower it?) Well, first he is the Chairman of NPP Council of Elders (or, at least, he was), and his status in our society will be elevated with an NPP regime. So you can’t fault the guy: he goes to sleep praying and dreaming that NPP will be back in the Jubilee House. But there may be other subtle reasons, i.e., the offertory plate. You see, regardless of party affiliation, everyone ought to be happy when our economy is managed well. Our businesses grow, and that extra income makes it possible for us to better take care of ourselves and families. And with a growing economy, we “give thanks,” by filling that offertory plate each week. The reverse is also true. In a frail economy, people become stingy as their pockets dry up.

So perhaps, Asante-Antwi has been experiencing dwindling sums in his offertory plates since John Atta-Mills ascended to the presidency. To be fair, the National Democratic Congress (NDC) was unlucky to assume the helm of affairs at a time of a global economic crisis. But if Asante-Antwi believes his congregation’s economic fortunes (and by extension, his own bottom-line) is impacted by NDC’s policies, then surely he has every right to voice this out, and to also endorse anyone else he thinks might be a better president.

Why should it be alright for the politician to freely “play the God-card,” but we are quick to condemn a pastor for wading into politics? We must have a strict standard of separation that applies to all institutions and leaders, as our constitution demands; but if not, then there should be no differential standards for politicians and pastors.

Edward Kutsoati, Associate Professor of Economics, Tufts University, Massachusetts and affiliate of and IMANI

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